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Take me back to Ahwahnee…

A curious op-ed in the New York Times on Yosemite.  Curious because it points in one direction for a long time before suddenly screeching to a stop and pointing in another. Leveraging off of the controversy over Confederate monuments and the renaming of some park facilities necessary during a court battle, Daniel Duane recounts the sad history of Native Americans in California in general and in the valley in particular. Readers can anticipate the point: we should abandon the Euro-Americanisms in the park and revert to names the Ahwahneechee used. And indeed he reaches this point only to ask the descendants and relatives of these people what should be done.  Their recommendation: get federal recognition for the tribe and cut back on visitation. “Renaming, [Bill Leonard, a descendent of Tenaya] said, ‘is not going to make us feel any better or more important — the reality is, most of us could care less what they call things.'” You get the feeling Duane was asked by some reader or editor to ask these people about their views (much as interviews with descendants of slaves and Confederate generals have appeared) and was given an answer kind of at odds with the thrust of the piece, which he dutifully tacked on.

Anyways, the summary of injustices is fair (Duane fortunately relies on a couple of pretty appropriate references) and something more Americans should be aware of. But he kind of lets the Park Service off the hook, hiding their role behind more generic labels of “park officials” and the “federal government.” Pre-1906 management of the valley by the state allowed the Ahwahneechee to stay in the valley, and while demands for inappropriate “Indian” shows and their menial position in Yosemite Park contrasts with what should have been their place as owners and proprietors of the valley, they were at least considered to be legitimate residents of the place. Federal management systematically marginalized and removed Native Americans; that management was, after 1916, the Park Service. There is something disturbing to most Americans to realize that one of the most highly thought-of groups of public servants did in fact behave in such a manner. And it is distressing to many who call the national parks “America’s Greatest Idea” to recognize that it was prefaced on the exclusion of the peoples who had been there first.

Duane also takes a hesitant slap at John Muir, and here GG asks a bit of forgiveness for delving a bit deeper.   Read More…

iPhone distances

One of the cute things that iPhones started doing was measuring how far you walked or ran–even if you didn’t ask it to do that. (Pace count is a different beast that, realistically, did not work well here). Folks have questioned the numbers that come out from their phone, so it seems mildly worthwhile to take advantage of some long-distance numbers that came out of a llama trip along the John Muir Trail last summer. Distances between campsites were estimated from a guidebook and compared with the distances the iPhone recorded each day:


There are a few ways to interpret this. A best-fit line would indicate that there was an additional 0.23 miles of walking each day and the iPhone mileage was about 8.6% higher than the guidebook distance. Alternatively, if the iPhone distance was correct, then there was a mile of so of walking each day beyond the hiking on the trail.  The former seems more likely (the iPhone was generally kept in a backpack that was dropped immediately in camp). But why would there be a nearly 9% difference in distance?

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Wilderness redux

Sorry, have been here before but a new example of the wilderness myth just cropped up and it seems worth revisiting this chestnut.  In an op-ed in the New York Times, Doug Scott argues against bikes in Wilderness (unfortunately, he does not really distinguish capital-W Wilderness areas, which are a legal description, from lowercase w wilderness, which might extend to areas not so protected).  Anyways, GG agrees that bikes in Wilderness is a bad idea. But Scott then goes on to say just why we have Wilderness

We set aside wilderness areas to protect them for what they are — wild places, untrammeled, as much as possible, by man, a reminder of what this country was like before Columbus set foot on this side of the Atlantic.

Now this is carefully worded, but as we’ve noted before, by removing Native Americans and greatly changing the populations of wild animals, these Wilderness areas look quite different from what was here before Columbus. They might indeed be a “reminder,” but that reminder leaves something of a false impression. They are wild in the sense of being unmanaged, but not wild in the sense of a natural balance free of human impact.

Also, this was only one of the motivations for creating Wilderness areas.  Other motivations might actually encourage the use of bikes (such a possibility is discussed in some of those earlier posts linked above).

The bill in question is inspired in part by closure of popular mountain bike trails in a recently created Wilderness. It isn’t much a leap for mountain bike advocates to say, if we were using it and it was still in a pristine enough condition to become Wilderness, then why say that Wilderness must exclude bikes? The answer above is, basically, because Wilderness visitors require there be no bikes. Yet Wilderness does not prevent the use of boom boxes (GG can testify from a recent trip that such use along Wilderness trails is actually growing), smart phones, handheld radios, or GPS units, none of which embody the essence of Wilderness. Leaning too hard on the experience visitors get will get very sticky very fast.

Or, had Wilderness advocates allowed this Wilderness to permit bikes, why exclude them elsewhere? This is presumably why the bikes were excluded, the old camel’s nose under the tent flap argument taking hold.

This headache is the product of using Wilderness as a one-size-fits-all means of protecting a landscape. We desperately need a more nuanced approach that buffers sensitive lands rather than extending complete protection right to the edge of civilization. Originally things like National Forests (originally the Forest Reserves) were meant to serve such a purpose, but conservationists increasingly grew wary of allowing Forest administrators to decide the fate of pristine lands as they showed an appetite for getting the cut out and promoted the number of miles of new road they were creating. The result are very contentious land management decisions made at the highest levels. This might not always produce results really consistent with Scott’s vision of WIlderness.

Consider the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which includes several lakes dammed for hydroelectric power, dams with cable railways and lakes with big bathtub rings late in the summer.  (To be clear, the cable railway and associated maintenance buildings are indeed cherry-stemmed in). How much of a “reminder of what this country was like before Columbus set foot on this side of the Atlantic” is that? And this is “untrammeled, as much as possible”? Really? By jamming stuff like this inside Wilderness and running these boundaries right to the very edge of civilization, we have cheapened the concept of–in Scott’s view, the very justification for–Wilderness areas. In a very real way, Wilderness advocates have brought this down on themselves.

Much as we have seen National Parks and Monuments evolve in some instances to be administered by non-Park Service agencies and continue to allow activities not usually consistent with parks, it seems possible that we might see something like this happen to Wilderness areas. And you know, that would actually be too bad because, well, the camel’s nose argument, the slippery slope–those are plausible outcomes.

Llama learnings

The past week has had bits and pieces of things that arose from llama packing the Muir Trail. So a last few odds and ends before moving back to more typical fare.

  • If you llama pack, make a list of what is in each bag once you first get bags balanced. It speeds things up on later days.
  • Similarly, stuff sacks make that description (and packing) lots easier. We had a green stuff sack with cooking gear, a blue one with towels and shower, a yellow one with power-related stuff, etc.
  • If your llama packs have small end pouches, use them both to easily shift things to get packs in balance but also for things you might want to grab. We had water bottles, first aid kit, and sandles in ours.
  • It seems there are two strategies for keeping llamas from getting poisoned: keep them away from complexes of plants, and let them roam. The first is what we did; the second is only open to private groups with their own llamas and the willingness to chase them down.
  • Probably a bad idea to leave llamas picketed in the same place for several hours unless you are confident there is nothing bad for them to eat.
  • Sure would be nice to have a llama-friendly list of grazing sites. Not enough llama-travel to justify one.
  • Look beyond the first obvious campsite. There is almost always a better one.
  • Take at least one outrageous luxury llama packing. People will be baffled why you use llamas without one.
  • Ovaeasy egg crystals really are good enough to leave eggs at home. Hunt them down.
  • You can never take enough chocolate.
  • Nice big llama-bag-sized bear boxes are tons easier to pack than those black cylindrical her cans. But the black cylinders are great for getting tortillas to last a long time.
  • Dress well if leading llamas-you will be in lots of vacation photos and so might want to look your best.
  • Don’t use water from a lake without an outlet unless your filter can be back flushed.
  • Always check in with a ranger. You never know what good karma might emerge.
  • Gravity feed water filters rock. They last longer if you are careful with what you put in.
  • Don’t crap in campsites. Please. You walked this far in wilderness, a few more steps won’t kill you. On a related note, learn just how deep 6 inches really is.
  • Plan on taking out your used TP. This is getting to be a common rule more easily addressed with planning.
  • Llama jokes are harder to come up with than you would expect.
  • Llamas are not bothered by lightning and thunder. But they will startle if you stumble while close behind them.
  • Solar panels for backpacking work great for iPhones but we had less luck with camera batteries. Try before you hike.
  • Solar panels work well lashed atop llama packs.
  • Obscure convenience:  Muir Trail Ranch has AC power for hikers. Come prepared.
  • Crushed hope: the little store at Muir Trail Ranch has no snacks. It does have gloves, bug stuff and first aid materials.
  • Moleskin without benzoin is basically an invitation for a new blister where the moleskin piled up.
  • Molefoam is a cruel joke.
  • Somebody please make size 12 1/2 boots.
  • If you can, take a chair. If not, take a hammock.
  • Tripods make good gravity-feed filter props when above timberline.
  • Marvel at those on the trail at sunrise or sunset. Did they really come to work that hard?
  • Have at least one mildly absurd food in your resupply. (Ours was Pringles).
  • Plan ahead. You don’t want to make the journey too long when passing through areas where grazing isn’t allowed.

Finally, some lousy llama jokes:

  • What is a religious llama’s favorite off-Broadway play?  Hello Dalai Llama.
  • Where do expectant llama mothers go?  Llama mamas class (Or llama-Lamaze)
  • What does a startled llama see in the mirror? His spitting image.
  • What is a llama’s favorite drink on a hot day?  Llamonade. (No it does not make sense).

Disrepair…or misunderstood?

Nicholas Kristof apparently was on the John Muir Trail with his daughter about the same time GG was on the trail with his daughter (but GG had 3 llamas, while poor Nicholas had to make do with a backpack).  How did we miss each other?  Anyways, he wrote a bit about how we all own national parks but then included this damning note:

Even on the John Muir Trail, large stretches are in disrepair and had turned into creeks of snowmelt when my daughter and I hiked them. This quickly erodes the trails so much that new ones have to be built nearby. This reluctance to pay for maintenance isn’t even fiscally prudent, for it’s far more expensive to build new trails than to maintain old ones.

Now there are a lot of things that need repair or maintenance in national parks, but you know what?  It isn’t clear that the John Muir Trail is anywhere near the top of the list.

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Road gaps

Hiking the Muir Trail this summer got GG pondering what might have been, as is still evident in the California highway numbering system…

If you are in Denver and driving east on I-70 and want to be on I-70 in Washington DC, you can simply stay on I-70.  This is pretty much true throughout the interstate system: get on I-5 in San Diego and you can follow it all the way to Seattle.  But get on California 190 in Porterville and head east and you’ll need an atlas to somehow get on California 190 heading east from Olancha. Similarly, following highway 168 east out of Fresno will carry you past a small ski area and to the edge of the Huntington Lake Resort, but try to continue on to the Bristlecone Pine forest and you’ll quickly find yourself on what amounts to a paved horse trail heading to Florence Lake with no hope of getting across the range in your motor vehicle. Those oddly disconnected pieces of numbered highway are reminders of how the long Wilderness of the Sierra very nearly was not to be.


Disconnected and incomplete trans-Sierra highways

These highway numbers are not an accident or a malicious joke by Caltrans.  These two highways were intended to be connected; two others were the Minarets Highways crossing the Sierra near Devils Postpile (a continuation of highway 203) and a continuation of highway 180 across Kearsarge Pass to Independence. As roads to the north were completed, continuing the march to the south seemed likely in the 1950s and plans were laid for expansion of the highway system.

Increased experience in mountain highways and a shift from a need for access to a need for preservation conspired to block this march of progress.  The cost of maintaining the existing trans-Sierra roads was proving to be significant, lessening Caltrans’s appetite for more expensive mountain roads only open a few months of the year; the need for residents of Fresno to visit Bishop was hardly compelling, the Forest Service established a Primitive Area across some road alignments, Congress legislated Wilderness areas in some other areas, and the most promising road (the Minarets Highway), which would have given Central Valley ski bums a quick link to Mammoth Mountain, was scotched by Governor Reagan and his Secretary of Resources, Ike Livermore, who apparently was scarred by finding automobiles at Reds Meadow as a youth working as a packer. [Reagan also killed the designation of the Mineral King road as a state highway].

This is generally good news though for Muir Trail hikers, though.  Had planned highways been completed, we would have crossed three major trans-Sierra highways instead of hiking for nearly 200 miles through wilderness. While this maybe has made getting a resupply harder than it might have been, it is difficult to imagine Highway 168 plowing down Evolution Valley or winding down Piute Creek towards the Muir Trail Ranch; the halfway point for the John Muir Trail might have been a highway rest area. Highway 180 would have replaced the busiest backcountry area in Kings Canyon National Park with gas fumes, car campgrounds and even more abuse. The fragmented wilderness would have been quite different.

In a way, it is possible that Los Angeles’s appropriation of the Owens River helped to keep the roads from being completed.  Had water stayed in the valley, it is nearly certain that populations would have been larger and more eager for major east-west highways.

Whatever the reasons, it is well to recall that one of the longest wilderness hikes in the country nearly became impossible.

Is Through-hiking Killing the Wilderness?


One observation from hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) with llamas was just how many people are on that trail (a separate observation was just how many of those backpackers are baby-boomers–seems like about a third if not more). Does this represent a big increase in Wilderness use, or is it misleading?

If you try and hike the Muir Trail, you quickly learn it is very popular.  Yosemite has a quota of 45 on permits leaving the park over Donahue Pass; this was instituted after the number of JMT hikers jumped from about 1000/year 14 years ago to 3500/year more recently. Similarly, the Forest Service has a quota of 25 people/day for exiting at Whitney Portal (there is also a quota for entering there).  The result of these has been to push hikers to other trailheads; the quota for entering at Cottonwood Pass, for instance, was met for most days in July this year. We met a lot of folks who started there.


JMT trail use, from Yosemite National Park website.

Is this a blip on the radar?  Is it an increase in popularity?  It is hard to tell…

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